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What is complementary therapy?

Hear from our complementary therapists and patients about how complementary therapy is used in a hospice setting, and the benefits.

You may have heard the term ‘complementary therapy’ before and wondered what it really meant, or how it’s used in a clinical setting like the hospice.

Complementary therapies include a broad range of treatments, including acupuncture, massage, aromatherapy and Reiki. They aren’t used at the hospice to replace medical care or treatments, but some patients choose complementary therapies to help manage some of their symptoms, such as stress and anxiety.

We believe that patients should be seen as more than just their illness. The people we care for are more than a list of symptoms to be managed – and the interaction between mind, body and spirit is very important in palliative care. This is why all patients at the hospice are offered a range of complementary therapies as part of their ongoing holistic care – our therapy team has provided 650 treatments in the past year.

Benefits of complementary therapy:

Complementary therapies work on all levels of mind, body, and spirit and aim to relieve stress and tension, aid relaxation, and promote a sense of well-being. There’s no exhaustive list of the benefits of complimentary therapy, and each different type of therapy will offer different positive outcomes depending on your receptiveness and what illness or condition you have. Some benefits include:

  • Helps improve relaxation which can also help your sleep quality and reduce anxiety
  • Soothes some symptoms caused by your illness or condition – like fatigue, nausea and constipation.
  • Reduces stress

Help to live well

Lead therapist and physiotherapist Holly Price says: “Often when someone hears the word ‘hospice’, they think about the end of life. They don’t think of the rehabilitative parts. We do have quite a big therapy team and we are here to support people to live how they want to live for as long as possible.”

Complementary therapist Mel Perry is part of Holly’s team. Mel worked as a complementary therapy facilitator at another hospice for five years, managing a large team, before joining St Barnabas House as a volunteer and later a member of staff.

“We can see patients almost from their first referral to the hospice,” says Mel. “You can see them all through the progression of their illness, and then you might see them on the IPU (In-Patient unit) and you have that immediate relationship with them. It’s nice for them to have a familiar face. My contact with a patient can be spread over years but it can be quite a short time as well.”

The complementary therapies available are gentle massage, aromatherapy, reflexology and reiki. All have benefited from research and are accepted as safe and beneficial for palliative care patients. They can all be modified according to individual needs and mobility – for example if someone can’t climb onto the massage couch, they might be able to sit at a table and lean over a pile of pillows, or stay in their wheelchair. The aim is to provide a calming, relaxing experience that may also assist with pain and management of symptoms such as nausea.

Complimentary therapist at work

Image above: Mel at work

Caring in the community

Since February 2022, the hospice has been offering complementary therapy community visits – with more patients receiving hospice care in their own homes, the team wanted to extend the services available to them. “The home visits were massively subscribed straight away,” says Mel. “And they are of such value to patients. I’ve been seeing a lady in the community for a little while now, and her son made a comment to her, which she passed on to me. Apparently, he never worries about his mum on a Thursday – he knows he can relax because she’s having her complementary therapy on that day, and it makes such a difference to her.

“Some patients say they look forward to the day they have a massage because they know they will sleep that night. Others find it helps their anxiety and gives them a space to talk. You build up a closeness over time and they feel like you’re not medical, you’re just there for them in that moment of time.”

Mel has recently started providing patients with aroma inhalers, initially pioneered by Manchester’s Christie Hospital. Each contains a blend of essential oils to address common complaints such as breathlessness, anxiety, insomnia, and nausea. “It’s something they can take home and do for themselves,” she says.

How do complementary therapies help?

Yvonne, 73, from Littlehampton has small cell lung cancer – and was referred to the hospice by her Oncologist for physiotherapy to help her breathing.

“They offer many different complementary therapies that I enjoy, such as massages, reflexology, and Indian head massages to name a few,” said Yvonne. “In my sessions, we always focus on what area of my body is hurting the most. I often struggle with my shoulders, so they give me a back massage with suitable oils. I find that the massages help me function better, stand up better and generally feel more like myself.”

Yvonne gets many benefits from complementary therapies. “As well as pain management, I always get a chance to relax with reflexology and have a good natter with the complementary therapists. The staff are so lovely there, it feels like you are spending time catching up with a friend.”

Plans for the future

In 2022, a charitable foundation made a grant to St Barnabas for training in this area. Our education department is offering teaching for existing complementary therapy practitioners in treating people with life-limiting conditions. The therapy team is also doing bitesize training sessions for healthcare assistants on the In-Patient Unit and across the hospice, so more patients can receive simple hand and foot massage when they would like it.

“In an ideal world, I’d love to be able to offer complementary therapy to family members as well,” says Mel. “Often people say to me, I shouldn’t be having this – it should be my wife, or it should be my husband – he’s the one who does all the caring. Life-limiting illnesses take a huge toll on the family as well and it would be lovely to be able to extend that care to them too.”

If you’re a patient at St Barnabas and would like to look into complimentary therapies further, speak to a doctor or nurse in the hospice – or contact us on: 01903 706300

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Find out more about the services we offer at the hospice

  • Living Well service: Supportive, informative and therapeutic! Our regular programme developed to support you, that you’re able to dip in and out of – depending what suits you best.
  • Support services: Such as counselling, practical advice (for instance about welfare and benefits) and spiritual support.
  • Working with the arts: our Artist-in-Residence works creatively with patients to help them express themselves.